Robert Musil’s Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften (“The Man Without Qualities”), one of the great novels of the past century, is a portrait of the Austrian early in 1914. The readers know that their silly world will come to a terrible end a few months later with the outbreak of war, but the protagonists do not. Musil published a first volume and spent the rest of his life trying to write a second, without success, for it is the sort of story that has no end except for the abyss.
Arab politics today has a Musil-like quality of unreality, for the conclusion will be the collapse of the Egyptian state. The misnamed “Arab Spring,” really a convulsion of a dying society, began with food shortages. Egypt imports half its caloric consumption, 45% of its people are illiterate, its university graduates are unemployable, its $10 billion a year tourism industry is shuttered for the duration, and its foreign exchange reserves are gradually disappearing. In August, the central bank’s reported reserves fell below what the bank calls the “danger level” of six months’ import coverage, or $25 billion, from $36 billion in February, although I suspect that even this number is bloated by $5 to $10 billion of Algerian and Saudi loans and trade credits. Despite reports in the press that food price inflation in Egypt has slowed, Arab-language Egyptian media report that the price of some staples, like rice and sugar, have risen by 50% or more since March. The military government is distributing bread and propane (the main cooking fuel).